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The expression police militarization conjures up images of cops in Kevlar, barging into homes with semi-automatic weapons. Familiar as that image might be, we don't know how often it really happens because there are no good statistics on police tactical operations in America. The federal government does not keep track, neither do the states - with one exception. NPR's Martin Kaste reports on why Utah decided it needed more information.
MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: The pressure to start counting these tactical operations in Utah started to build back in 2012 after a drug raid gone wrong in Ogden.
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KASTE: That's dashcam video from a backup police car arriving at the scene. A tactical team from the local drug task force had gone into a little house where marijuana was being grown, but they ran into gunfire and an officer was killed. The resident, Matthew Stewart, later said that he thought he was being robbed. Three and a half years later, his father, Michael Stewart, sits in a car in a church parking lot across from the house, recalling the aftermath.
MICHAEL STEWART: There were bullets in the house next door. These guys were - they were just shooting, you know? I mean, this neighborhood has children. You know, why would they be that out of control?
KASTE: The raid caused intense arguments in Utah. Did the agents give Matthew Stewart enough time to answer the door? Did he know that the intruders were police? Those questions were never answered in court because Stewart died in jail, apparently a suicide. But deeper questions - questions about how often the police use these tactics and why - those questions maybe could be answered. So last year, Utah's legislature told police agencies to start tracking their deployment of tactical groups. The first numbers came out a couple of weeks ago. State Sen. Mark Madsen is in his office at the Capitol, and he's looking at the breakdown of the reasons for tactical operations.
MARK MADSEN: Active shooter, barricaded suspect - these are less than a percent.
KASTE: Madsen's the chairman of the Judiciary and Law Enforcement Committee, and he's long suspected that high drama operations, such as hostage situations, were actually only a small percentage of the total. Now these numbers confirm that suspicion.
MADSEN: Yeah - drugs. It's just - this is mostly about drugs, mostly about drugs, yeah - and with very few weapons around, apparently.
KASTE: It's about drugs almost 80 percent of the time. This annoys Madsen because he's a Republican with a strong libertarian bend. And he sees these drug raids as a case of government run amok.
MADSEN: They are managing our lives. They're telling us what we can and can't do. They're telling us what pursuit of happiness is legal and what pursuit of happiness will cause our door to be kicked down and to be dragged off to prison.
KASTE: In Utah, libertarian-minded Republicans have joined the minority Democrats on this issue, putting Utah's law enforcement agencies on the defensive in a way that they're not used to.
JASON MUDROCK: I think part of the problem is in the definition of what we're calling SWAT and what we're calling tactical teams.
KASTE: Jason Mudrock is SWAT. He's a sergeant with the Unified Police of Greater Salt Lake. He says you shouldn't confuse SWAT with other kinds of heavily armed police tactical groups, such as drug task forces. They may look and sound the same, but he says his SWAT team is not in the business of barging into houses unless there's a clear danger.
MUDROCK: This is the biggest stick in the agency, and we don't use that stick unless we can quantify it somehow with either weapons history, statements made by suspects, availability to weapons. All these different factors that we take into account prior to us even saying OK, we're going to take this operation on and deploy it.
KASTE: And private SWAT officers often criticize the drug task forces, which proliferated in the '80s and '90s. They don't like how the task forces seem focused on taking suspects by surprise so they can keep them from flushing the drugs. SWAT officers say the tactics should be about protecting lives, not evidence. But Mudrock admits that all tactical police are now feeling pressure.
MUDROCK: We've had some of these blurred lines over the years. And I agree with the legislation on that we're trying to professionalize this a little bit and make it more standardized.
KASTE: Besides requiring numbers, the Utah legislature has also tightened the rules. Officers have to wear clearly marked uniforms and body cameras if they have them. And the law now clarifies that simple possession or use of illegal drugs is not enough to justify the police breaking down your door. On the receiving end of this kind of legislation is Troy Burnett, sitting in a diner in Ogden. He does the interview here because he's on a drug task force and the office location is supposed to stay secret. In fact, he's on the Weber-Morgan Narcotics task force. That's the same task force that raided Matthew Stewart's house in 2012.
TROY BURNETT: You know, it is what it is. I lost a friend out of that. I did. I lost a friend. And a lot of my other friends were hurt. And I thought it was just so unnecessary.
KASTE: He wasn't on the task force at the time of the raid, but he's convinced that Matthew Stewart knew full well that he was shooting at police. Burnett rejects the suggestion that drug task forces are reckless, and he says he doesn't mind that the state is now keeping track of the operations. But he also believes that the debate over tactical operations has been tangled up with something very different - the question of whether drugs like marijuana should be illegal.
BURNETT: Here's the thing. I don't care what the law is. You know, my job is to enforce it because I think that's what society expects me to do and that's my obligation. Look, we're law enforcement officers. It's on the books. We're supposed to do this.
KASTE: And it's true that many of the people who want to count police tactical operations also want to decriminalize drugs. Chief among them is Connor Boyack, who runs a local libertarian advocacy group called Libertas. He says collecting this data is key.
CONNOR BOYACK: Imagine if we as taxpayers allowed the government to tax and spend on whatever it wanted without tracking that information. There would be no accountability, and there would be every incentive for abuse. As it pertains to law enforcement, we've allowed for the same incentive without tracking and measuring this exact information.
KASTE: But numbers aren't everything. Sometimes they have a way of being ignored. It turns out Utah is not the first state to count tactical operations. Maryland passed a similar law five years ago after a botched raid there. But then their law lapsed. Legislators reportedly forgot to renew it. Connor Boyack says he doesn't expect attention to wane the same way in Utah. The first year's report is just the beginning, he says, it's a baseline. And he looks forward to comparing Utah's numbers with those of other states, assuming they follow suit. Martin Kaste, NPR News, Salt Lake City.
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